Obama and McCain Polls: Dead Heat Going into Conventions

I saw the headline “Poll Finds Little Support for Obama” on memeorandum and, of course, clicked out of curiousity. It turns out to have been a poll in Oklahoma, where John McCain has a comfortable 56-24 lead. That’s not exactly surprising. If it was even close in Oklahoma, we’d be looking at an absolute rout.

What’s more interesting, though, is that despite a bad couple of weeks for McCain and Obama’s rock star reception on his world tour, the numbers are actually tightening in McCain’s favor. Look at the most recent iterations of the national polls aggregated at RealClearPolitics:

RealClearPolitics 4 August 2008

The trend lines provide a better visual:

RCP 4 AUG 08

Note that the sense of dramatic variation is a function of scale:  Obama’s numbers have ranged from 43 percent to 49 percent and McCains from 40 percent to 47 percent over the last eight months.

Here are the poll averages in the so-called Battleground States:

Colorado, Virginia, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, Florida

They all remain absolute toss-ups; only Michigan even shows signs of leaning to one candidate.

Despite this closeness in the national polls and the Battleground States, Obama is clearly ahead.  ElectralVote.com has the Elecotral College going Obama 316  – McCain 198 – Ties 24 with Missouri and Virginia being exactly tied.   Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight has it Obama 303, McCain 235 with the main difference being he gives McCain Florida whereas EV.com gave it to Obama.    Both sets of numbers are skewed by the inclusion of numerous states “barely” leaning toward a candidate.

Silver, a Democratic political analyst, has an interesting piece in today’s LAT entitled “Why McCain is Still in It.”  He argues that, while his party has a substantial lead in party identification, its coalition is much more difficult to corral.

The breadth of the Democratic Party base was revealed during the primary campaign, when more than 35 million voters split their votes between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama across every conceivable racial, religious and socioeconomic line. Coal miners in West Virginia are, by and large, still Democrats, but so increasingly are hedge-fund managers in Virginia.

In congressional elections, this isn’t a problem. The candidate can set his pitch to his or her district. But presidential elections are one-size-fits-all events — what works in Wheeling, W.Va., may not work in Whittier, Calif. Ironically then, the more diverse and broad-based a party is, the more likely its members are to split their tickets.

Then again, it’s not as if the Republican coalition is homogeneous, either.  Nor has McCain, a’ la Ronald Reagan, managed to rally all parts of the base.   Silver’s more plausible explanation is that McCain is succeeding precisely because he’s not seen as a “regular Republican.”

How has McCain done it? It has mostly to do with his reputation as a moderate. In that same NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 21% of voters said they viewed McCain as “very conservative,” while 34% pegged him as a moderate. As long as he maintains his moderate brand, McCain will seem acceptable to some large number of independent voters and some smaller number of Democrats.

This is predicted by something known as the “median voter theorem,” which essentially holds that as the electorate shifts ideologically — that is, to the right or left — the candidates will tend to shift along with it to narrow their ideological differences with the average voter. Over the last several years, the electorate has shifted leftward — and the two parties have responded accordingly in this year’s presidential race. The GOP will nominate a candidate who is widely perceived as being to the left of the party’s conservative base, whereas the Democratic Party will again pick a standard-bearer more authentically liberal than centrist.

I think that’s right.

As usual, the Republican strategy is partly based on painting the opposition as too liberal and out of touch with American values whereas the Democratic strategy is to paint the opposition is uncaring and out of touch with the plight of the have-nots.   The Democrats are winning that argument at the moment.  But just barely.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael says:

    As long as he maintains his moderate brand, McCain will seem acceptable to some large number of independent voters and some smaller number of Democrats.

    I fully expect that Obama will try to drive a wedge between McCain’s moderate and conservative supporters. Expect to see him try to force McCain to stake a position on social issues that will turn some people away from him, regardless of which side of the issue he takes.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Chuck Todd argued this morning on MSNBC that McCain is receiving a bump from conservatives coming home. Don’t know if that is true, but since McCain has not made any overtures to conservatives, I assume such a move would be based on Obama’s negatives from the world tour and perceived bias in the media coverage.

  3. sam says:

    Michael beat me to it, even down to the quote. Also, though I suspect copyright issues preclude it, I’d like to see an Obama ad featuring Grampa Simpson (or maybe Grammpa Simpson), as a counter-ad to the Paris-Brittany ad. That would no doubt ginger things up, as WFB might have said.

  4. RoyalSavage says:

    The only reason why McCain is still competitive is his distance from the President and “regular” Republicans. Otherwise, I suspect he’d be done for already.

  5. DL says:

    “…[he’s] succeeding precisely because he’s not seen as a “regular Republican.”
    “The GOP will nominate a candidate who is widely perceived as being to the left of the party’s conservative base…”

    Why fool around? If being against conservative social values (an euphamism for religion and doing what is good) is what will succeed, then announce that God is out – liberalism lite is in – and proceed toward the destruction of the nation without a moral base. (morality without God is just blank rules made by the most powerful of the moment)

    The perfect metaphor for this “win at any cost” mentality is the children’s book The Little Engine That Could. Except now it’s heading down the mountain.

    Why is it, people fail to understand that most social conservatives also believe that necessary war and small government are essential, but without a moral compass they become destructive?

    Western society had evolved to its great height because it followed Judeo-Christian principles in its public affairs, now it choses to destroy itself by throwing the pilot overboard.

  6. Michael says:

    morality without God is just blank rules made by the most powerful of the moment

    Morality with God is just blank rules made by the most powerful of ages ago.

  7. Bithead says:

    The Democrats are winning that argument at the moment. But just barely.

    I dunno. Did you see this morning, where Rasmussen has Mccain ahead?

  8. sam says:

    I dunno. Did you see this morning, where Rasmussen has Mccain ahead?

    Some ahead:

    This is the first time McCain has enjoyed even a statistically insignificant advantage of any sort since Obama clinched the Democratic nomination on June 3.

    But I guess an insignicant straw is still a straw to clutch.

  9. Bithead says:

    Oh, I don’t think the numbers themselves mean much… except the direction things are moving. After all, they’re not holding the election today, are they?

    The direction the thing is taking, is what I take as James’ underlying point, here.

  10. sam says:

    Well, I’m not sure the thing is doing anything at the present but stooging around in a holding pattern. The contest has not really been joined.

  11. Bithead says:

    I hate to burn up the straw you’re holding onto, but over the last couple months, Obama’s lead (What, almost 10 points?) has melted away.

    And as you say, we’ve not even started yet.

  12. anjin-san says:

    According to the Cook Political Report:

    Obama currently has a 240 to 174 Electoral vote edge, with 124 Electoral votes in the Toss Up column. 270 are needed to win.

    Does not sound like a dead heat, or a momentum shift.

  13. Bithead says:

    Obama currently has a 240 to 174 Electoral vote edge, with 124 Electoral votes in the Toss Up column. 270 are needed to win.

    What a turnaround from eight years ago, when we were told that Bush stole the election, based on the popular vote. Now, suddenly, the electoral system is valid again.

  14. I think should win so we can see a change in the structure and politics of how things work. But at the same time by looking at the polls I think that McCain will win because of some people not wanting change. I’ll be interested to see how these polls effect the real results!

  15. Historically, a dead heat now means the Democrats are losing, and perhaps losing badly.

  16. WR says:

    Actually, Bithead, if you’d been paying attention 8 years ago you would have heard that Bush stole the election because the Republicans threw tens of thousands of African-Americans off the voter roles because their names slightly resembled those of convicted felons, because the Republican secretary of state shut down vote counting prematurely, because the Bush team sent in squads of thugs to make sure counting votes couldn’t continue (and then made sure that all the leaders of the “white collar riot” got cushy White House jobs, and because a right-leaning Supreme Court ignored the law, the precedents, and their own stated political beliefs to hand the presidency to the guy who they backed.

    The only screaming about the popular vote referred to the way Gore won it — in Florida. And thus the electoral college.

    Fortunately, it all turned out so well with Bush in charge…

  17. Bruce Moomaw says:

    Austin: “Historically, a dead heat now means the Democrats are losing, and perhaps losing badly.”

    A wee bit premature. 1968: Humphrey kicks off campaign trailing Nixon by 12 points; comes within 3/4% of winning.

    1992: Clinton trails Bush Sr. by landslide in June; surges into 15-point lead by September; slides back to 5-point (but still solid) win by November.

    2000: Gore trails Bush solidly in July; surges into 8-point lead by September; slides back to 1/2% popular-vote win in November (but is robbed of it by Electoral College, plus fact that Nader decides to sabotage the democratic process for his personal amusement and deliberately bleeds 2% off Gore’s margin).

    As for those “trend lines”: note that McCain was actually closer to him a few weeks ago before the margin re-widened, and it’s still not back to being as narrow as it was then. (Rasmussen’s poll today is indeed interesting — but Gallup’s poll today shows Obama moving back into a 3-point lead today after McCain had caught up with him 2 days ago.)

    So, the current close polls mean what they’ve always meant: as Joyner says, right now we don’t have the slightest idea who’s going to win. (Although we DO know, with virtual certainty, that the Dems are going to beat the snot out of the GOP for the second Congressional election in a row, and that if McCain does win it will be entirely due to his idiosyncratic popularity as a war hero. See the compendium of Congressional polls at Polling Report and Rasmussen .)

  18. Bruce Moomaw says:

    And to WR: While all your accusations are true (with the possible exception of the last one, although even some conservative legal scholars such as Michael McConnell think the Court’s decision stank), none of them actually swung the election for Bush — except that first one, which really did. (The most bizarre aspect of the 2000 Florida election was that if the recount had gone according to the rules Bush wanted, Gore would have won — whereas if it had gone according to the rules Gore wanted, Bush would have won. If it had gone according to the rules the Florida State Supreme Court wanted, Bush would also have won. Details on request.)

    The false list of “black felons” really DID unquestionably throw the 2000 Presidential election to Bush — but it was actually initiated under Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. However, this was only 6 months before the end of his term, whereas Jeb Bush’s administration not only didn’t reexamine it for two straight years before the election, but then actually constructed ANOTHER such list of fake “black felons”, which would have gone into effect during the 2004 election if the Miami Herald hadn’t fought Jeb hammer and tongs for years to try and get access to the list and finally found a sympathetic judge.

    One reason I have a soft spot for Florida’s new GOP Gov. Charles Crist is that two of the first things he did on entering office — which he won over the cold dead body of Jeb Bush’s machine, which had tried desperately to hook the GOP nomination for another candidate — were to (1) get rid of all this crap once and for all by immediately eliminating ANY disenfranchising of ex-felons, and (2) also get rid of those sinister very easily riggable Diebold voting machines that Jeb and Katherine Harris were determined to install. He’d make an excellent running mate for McCain — except for those rumors that he’s really One Of Them, which his recent marriage may have been an attempt to squelch.

  19. Bruce Moomaw says:

    CORRECTION: Jeb Bush’s second list of “ex-felons” was actually correct where black ex-felons were concerned — but (as the Miami Herald finally pried out of his administration through herculean efforts) it mistakenly failed to include a single, solitary HISPANIC ex-felon. This is interesting because in Florida, unlike most states, Hispanics lean Republican, thanks to the fact that they’re largely Cuban. Accidental? Maybe.

    My apologies for my mistake, but anyone who tries to understand recent Florida elections can get mixed up awfully easily.

  20. Bruce, nice job cherry picking dates and elections. Very persuasive.

  21. Bruce Moomaw says:

    Shucks, Charles; we’re talking about 3 of the only 6 Presidential races since 1948 in which there was any significant shift in either direction during the campaign. (If it’s any comfort, you do have 1976, 1980 and 1988 on your side as races in which the Republican candidate did better in November than he was doing at this point in summer.)